May 31, 2023 – In 1823, not long after Pope Pius VII restored the Society of Jesus in 1814, twelve Jesuits and six enslaved people set off down the Ohio River with little to guide them but an intense faith that God would lead them safely through twisting channels and submerged tree trunks to a small frontier town where they could begin building their dream of a church in the New World.
They arrived in St. Louis on May 31, 1823.
When the first group of Jesuits – seven novices, three brothers and two priests – arrived, St. Louis was still a small frontier town with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, but within three decades, it was one of the 10 largest cities in the country with 80,000 residents. There was plenty of work for the Jesuits to do.
The Jesuits – all Belgian-born, save one who was Dutch – had come at the invitation of Louis Du Bourg, bishop of the Louisiana Territory, who had given them land in Florissant, Missouri, 20 miles north of St. Louis. Bishop Du Bourg was looking for someone to take over the fledgling St. Louis College that had opened in 1818. Seeing an opportunity and a need, the Jesuits took it over in 1829.
The Missouri Jesuits continued to respond to needs all around them despite language barriers, limited resources and men, and differences of opinion about which ministries were most critical.
The late Jesuit historian Fr. John Padberg, SJ, once described those Belgian Jesuits and the men who succeeded them as adventurers and entrepreneurs with an “apostolic itch” to do the work that was so obviously needed.
“The impulse toward apostolic work was very deep in the founding genes or charism of the Missouri Province,” he said back in 2013, when the former Missouri Province celebrated its 150th anniversary.
Missionary Fr. Peter De Smet, one of the novices in the original 1823 party, embodied the early Jesuits’ adventurous streak. More interested in parish work and missions than schools, De Smet traveled tens of thousands of miles in the West, exploring and establishing missions, and acting as quasi-ambassador to Native Americans and the Europeans who funded his work. He persisted, until poor health forced him back to St. Louis.
The Missouri Mission became a Jesuit province on Dec 3, 1863. Jesuits of this province would go on to found colleges and universities across the country, including Xavier, Creighton, Marquette, St. John’s College (Belize), Regis, Rockhurst and Nirmala (Delhi, India), in addition to high schools, parishes, retreat houses and other ministries at the service of God and the Church.
In 2014, the Missouri Province joined with the New Orleans Province to form the USA Central and Southern Province of the Society of Jesus.